Francesca Schiavone making most of her late career flourish as she aims to defend title

Before her return to Paris, Francesca Schiavone sought inspiration not in pictures of last year's sensational French Open triumph but in a moment more than a decade earlier when she had dreamed such an achievement might be possible.

The expressive Italian, who takes on China's Li Na today at Xpm bidding to win a second successive title, first came to Roland Garros as a junior in 1999, losing in the quarter-finals.

She took time out to head to Court Suzanne Lenglen, where her idols Steffi Graf and Monica Seles were competing for a place in the final. She said: "I remember I went there with my camera to take a picture. Every year before I come here, I look at that picture. In that moment I was in Suzanne Lenglen like a normal person, in the crowd.

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"I remember that moment, and I said, 'I want to play on this court. I want to be like them'. Maybe that can make the difference."

Despite last year's triumph over Samantha Stosur, Schiavone did not begin the tournament as one of the favourites having failed to reach another final since.

However, she has improved throughout the fortnight and on Thursday put in a supreme performance to defeat French hope Marion Bartoli 6-3 6-3.

Schiavone, 30, and 29-year-old Li are the oldest grand slam finalists in the women's game since Jana Novotna took on Nathalie Tauziat at Wimbledon 13 years ago, and if the Italian wins she will be oldest champion since Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon for the last time in 1990.

It is part of a growing trend in tennis, and Schiavone thinks that can only be a good thing for players of all ages.

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She said: "I think it is good, not just for tennis, but also for the younger players that are coming through. They can understand that their career is not just one, two or three years, but it is long, so they have to control it and to improve every day.

"It is like wine, to stay in the bottle longer makes it much, much better."

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Schiavone is not just an antidote to the period where women's tennis was dominated by teenagers but also to the over-reliance on pure power.

The 30-year-old defeats opponents using a beguiling mix of spins and slices, and frequently left Bartoli chasing shadows yesterday.

She hopes her game can prove an inspiration to others, adding: "I've said it from the start when people have asked why I've got these results on clay at this age. On clay, it's a mix of everything.

"You have to be good physically, mentally and use good tactics. You can't play just with power because you have always the time to defend and to counter-attack.

"In one point on clay you can be defending, then attacking, then up at the net and then again on the defensive.You need to use the mind, the heart, the body, everything that you are."

Schiavone and Li, who is looking to become the first Asian player to win a grand slam singles title after falling just short at the Australian Open, have met four times before and are currently tied at two wins apiece.

The Italian beat her rival in the third round at Roland Garros last year, losing only six games, but Li believes her experience in Melbourne, where she was defeated in three sets by Kim Clijsters can help her this time.

The sixth seed said: "In Melbourne it was my first time in a final. You don't have any experience before you come to a grand slam final. But I have been there one time already, so I think I can do better this time."

The 29-year-old has beaten Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova in her last three matches.

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